When New York’s longest-running jazz club opened in 1935, it was modelled on a Viennese cabaret and poetry house. For two decades, the tiny basement Village Vanguard hosted a mix of bohemian poets, edgy comics and folk, blues and jazz singers. It was here that Lenny Bruce and Lead Belly made their mark, and Woody Allen and Harry Belafonte were among those who got a start.
But from 1957, proprietor Max Gordon concentrated mostly on jazz, and the venue soon became the go-to place to record modern jazz iconoclasts playing to the max. Legendary live recordings stretch from Bill Evans to Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and recent residencies have produced seminal recordings by guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Jason Moran.
Clearly unfazed by history, in February 2019 saxophonist Dayna Stephens brought his loose-limbed quartet into the club for a residency. The style is flowing modern jazz, the delivery is confident and the all-original programme, spread over two CDs, references Stephens’s decade-plus recording career.
The first CD opens with “Smoking Gun”, a rewrite of a tune by Thelonious Monk, first heard on Stephens’s 2007 debut album The Timeless Now. Stephens’s steely tenor sax has a warm and wispy edge, his phrasing is focused and drums fizz and ping over Ben Street’s woody walking bass. “Tarifa” comes next, from this year’s CD Liberty, a feature for soprano sax with drummer Greg Hutchinson firing rimshots over repeatedly riffing bass. Later, the up-tempo “Contagious” is set up beautifully by lush balladry from pianist Aaron Parks, and the fresh-minted “Lesson One” simmers the set to a close.
The second CD mixes head-nodding lopes and groovy introspections with tense up-tempo interplay and features for all. The inventive Stephens is commanding, Parks excels when centre stage and the rhythm section play with vigour and flair. The set ends with Stephens creating grungy sounds on an Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI), the only downside of an engaging release.
‘Right Now! Live at the Village Vanguard’ is released by Contagious Music